One of my best friends and mentor was the late, great, Marshall Jamison and he, above anyone else, taught me many of my most important life lessons — the first of which was the definition of a “bastard.”

Marshall was a big-time New York television and theatre producer when he decided to take an easier life in Nebraska by bringing his New York talent and applying it to the Nebraska ETV Network as a Senior Producer. His biggest success as a producer/director for NETV — in addition to creating original dramas for the network and executive producing the five-part Mark Twain series for PBS’ American Playhouse — was the 50 episode PBS series, “Anyone For Tennyson?

Marshall and I were working on a live television production. I was incredibly young and he had taken me on as his own personal creative project. Marshall was producing and directing a national concert for television when the lighting director arrived fresh from New York. The lighting director had the usual New York crudeness and the moment he stepped on set, he began barking out orders and belittling and badgering the local crew in the meanest possible terms by calling them “untalented hicks” who had “no appreciation for art” because they were “too stupid to get it.”

At that time, in the middle 1980’s, Nebraska was still unexplored territory to many outsiders and when native Nebraskans were exposed to people from the outside world beyond the prairie states there was often a cultural clash between urgency, values and methods of working — but one thing that was never acceptable then or now was to lose your temper over nothing and the New York lighting director was being especially harsh in his screaming rendition of why the current lighting setup that everyone had been working on for the last day and a half was “total crap!”

Marshall, a tall, burly, man with a big shoulders and a booming voice, called the lighting director over to a dark corner of the theatre and said, “You don’t talk to my guys that way. This isn’t New York where everything goes. You be nice.” The lighting director nodded, apologized and said he “understood.”

Marshall nodded back and motioned with his giant arm for the lighting director to return to work. As the lighting director backed away and returned to the set, he immediately changed his tone and began to chum up with the crew. Marshall turned to me and whispered as he cocked his head in the direction of lighting director, “That guy’s the definition of a bastard.”

I looked up at Marshall as he nodded at me , waiting for a response. I asked, “Why’s that guy the definition?” “Look at him.” Marshall crossed his arms and glared at the lighting director who was now laughing and hugging various crew members. “He’s all nice now.” “Yeah,” I responded, “But isn’t that what you told him to do?” “Yeah,” Marshall sighed, “And that’s why he’s a bastard.” I nodded in agreement with Marshall, and then shook my head, “Okay, I’m not getting it. He did what you asked and he’s a bastard?”

“Right,” Marshall wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, “He came in here full of piss and look at him now. He’s being nice. He can be nice. But he came in here and was mean. I’d let it go if he had no idea what I was talking about when I told him to knock it off or if he was still yelling. But he isn’t, see? He’s nice, and that’s the definition of a bastard: Choosing to be mean when you have it in you to be nice.”

Marshall and I stood there in silence for the next half-hour and watched the lighting director work his magic and win over the crew with compliments on their hard work.

It was then I began to understand how the choices you make in every moment of your life define you in the eyes of others — and how being genuinely nice first must always be your primary instinct or you risk having your talent outweighed by your mean.

20 Comments

  1. Spot on, both in definition and in the lesson of the choices we all make when interacting with others.
    Before any word leaves your mouth it must be approved by the three gatekeepers;
    The first will ask: “Is it true?”
    The second will ask: “Is it necessary?”
    The third will ask: “Is it kind?”
    Anon

  2. David!
    What a brilliant article! although i cannot help but sympathize with the LD. he probably got where he is riding on this very same ability to switch gears and adapt to his environment and the people he was working with at any given moment. and the nature of real world business apparently rewards those with political and diplomatic skills and not necessarily those who’re talented or nice. i’m not saying that being more talented will make you a better manager – you’ll probably be miserable and be bad in that role if you just have to manage and not perform – but when organizations train their future leaders in “people skills” what are they saying? that it is essentially an act to get what you need. that it doesn’t matter if you’re not genuinely a nice guy, we can work around that, here read this booklet and attend this workshop! the only semblance of redemption comes from the fact that it’s done in the greater interest of the organization’s goals. so when your niceness works against you it’s only natural to want to suppress it. how else do you get ahead? dog eat dog and all that.
    the thing then is, that once you get to a point in your career – especially where your actions and words will affect the lives and feelings and careers of those who work with you – you really need to take a good hard look at yourself and what you’ve done and see who you’ve become. the ability to bullsh*t comes with the necessity to bullsh*t to yourself and your conscience. nobody starts out mean or wanting to be like “that mean, successful bastard!” who could live with that? not many, i presume, unless you’re just a well-adjusted psychopath.
    [Comment edited by David W. Boles for content.]

  3. Love that list, Nicola!
    Marshall and I talked about that day a lot and he also taught me truly mean people have no clue they are mean and if you ask them to be nice they will say, “What? I am nice!”
    Then you can not like them for being mean but you can’t blame them for being innately mean because they have no self-awareness about it — you just avoid them.
    That’s probably been the hardest thing to accept in others — knowing there are some out there who are naturally cruel and that’s just the way they’re made.

  4. Hi Dananjay —
    Yes, you were caught in Akismet! The “b.s.” words got you. We have strict curse filters in place here.
    You’re right that in NYC, the lighting director would’ve been accepted as is because there’s no real expectation or demand for being nice first here, though it’s appreciated when provided — but the risk you run in being nice is people will see you as weak and in need of squashing. It’s a trick to be nice, yet tough, in a burgeoning urban core like NYC.
    Generally, in the entertainment business, profit and talent trumps any personality defects — but when you’re out of the hardcore entertainment world an in another one, you need to learn how to code-shift your memes and communication values or you’ll get bitten — and that’s the lesson, I think… just be nice always and you won’t have to worry about shifting who you are to fit in anywhere…

  5. true, David, you can have a good character or you can have a bad character, but the saddest thing is to have no character because then you’re just someone who could’ve been good and isn’t. the word “charitraheen” in hindi captures this human state perfectly.

  6. Dananjay —
    Yes, that makes great sense. It is a question of character and some people just don’t get it because they never had any. Character is earned, not learned and it can never be taught.
    Love the Hindi word! Thanks for that enlightenment!

  7. “That’s probably been the hardest thing to accept in others — knowing there are some out there who are naturally cruel and that’s just the way they’re made.”
    Yes accept it and not waste energy in trying to change them . Just accept it and walk away …………

  8. I think you were slightly touched — when I tried to post a comment all your article comments appeared in my comment box. I left and came back a few minutes later and everything returned to normal. You were lucky that all your posts didn’t disappear or turn into pages, though! 😀